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McCain Foreign Policy: Bush Doctrine Plus


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) (WDCpix)

Since he began running for president, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has embraced President George W. Bush’s foreign policy. He has done so for a simple and understandable reason: it was McCain’s policy first.

“I’d institute a policy that I call ‘rogue state rollback,’” McCain said during a GOP primary debate in February 2000. “I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically elected governments.” Though Bush himself would not embrace McCain’s until after 9/11, this approach to global affairs would eventually become known as the Bush Doctrine.

Image has not been found. URL: http://www.washingtonindependent.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/nationalsecurity1.jpgIllustration by: Matt Mahurin

Yet when McCain walked to the podium yesterday at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council to deliver his clearest speech yet outlining a McCain foreign policy — a policy characterized by what could be endless wars — the media almost uniformly declared it a break with Bush.

McCain sanded down the edges of the Bush Doctrine by urging more consulting with allies and action on climate change. The result? “Republican presidential candidate John McCain suggested that as president, his foreign-policy approach would be different, more collaborative,” Fox News’s Molly Henneberg reported. Added CNN’s Dana Bash:”This speech was mainly an attempt to highlight a McCain world view quite different from the president’s.”

Notably, one person who didn’t jump at the chance to distance McCain from Bush was McCain’s chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann. Asked by reporters if McCain intended to portray himself as departing from Bush’s legacy, Scheunemann replied, “I’ll leave that to you.” For good reason: McCain represents not a break from the Bush Doctrine, but rather its intensification.

Much as Bush has never backed away from his invasion and occupation of Iraq, McCain endorsed a maximal, not minimal, definition of U.S. goals. “Success in Iraq is the establishment of peaceful, stable, prosperous, democratic states that pose no threat to neighbors and contribute to the defeat of terrorists.” Withdrawal would be “morally reprehensible” and an “unconscionable act of betrayal.” It would yield, in McCain’s telling, “genocide, and destabilize the entire [Middle East] as neighboring powers come to the aid of their favored factions.” Iran would see “our premature withdrawal as a victory.”

What of Iraq today? “Those who argue that our goals in Iraq are unachievable are wrong. Just as they were wrong a year ago, when they declared the war in Iraq already lost.” McCain proceeded to rattle off some already-outdated statistics comparing the late-2007 reduction in violence to 2005 levels — levels that already led his fellow Vietnam veteran, Rep. Jack Murtha (D-Penn.) to break from his hawkish past and endorse withdrawal.

McCain appeared divorced from reality over the war. As he spoke, weak government forces battled Moqtada Sadr’s Mahdi Army. More than 200 have died so far in those clashes — clashes which, according to NPR, have led government security forces to defect to Sadr’s movement. With the departure of the final “surge” brigade from Iraq next week, the window during which the U.S. could operate with maximum military strength closes, and in the wake of that closure comes the most serious challenge to the government’s authority since Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took power in the spring of 2006.

Further demonstrating McCain’s unmooring, the enemy described in his speech is an undifferentiated “radical Islamic terrorism.” It is less an entity than a metaphysical concept — existing everywhere and without distinction.

McCain draws no distinction between the puny Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. Interestingly, the U.S. military in Iraq does: it recently gave a briefing that described Al Qaeda in Iraq’s foot soldiers as brainwashed twentysomethings rather than fanatical murderers.

It should go without saying that an inability to even properly diagnose the enemy can only lead to counterproductive, astrategic overreaction.

Iran, far from being indistinguishable from Al Qaeda, repeatedly offered to help Washington defeat the Sunni movement during the early days of the Afghanistan war. Indeed, Iran doesn’t view a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq as a victory; it views the U.S. in Iraq as a victory — since not only is the bellicose superpower tied down and bloodied, it supports Iran’s allies. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad walked the streets of Baghdad to a hero’s welcome. Were Bush or McCain to attempt the same would yield a certain assassination attempt.

The media picked up on McCain’s qualifiers on the Bush Doctrine. McCain “insist[ed] he will abandon the president’s perceived go-it-alone mentality,” Bash reported. Yet such tactical adjustments are in the service of Bush’s rhetorical commitment to a form of democracy. “We must help expand the power and reach of freedom,” McCain said, “using all of our many strengths as a free people. This is not just idealism. It is the truest kind of realism.”

What the last seven years have demonstrated is that it may be the falsest. Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine are, indeed, all more democratic than they were seven years ago. But in all three cases, those fledgling democracies have been characterized by sectarianism, religious fanaticism, illiberalism and (with the exception of Lebanon) anti-Americanism. It is precisely Bush’s strategic ignorance that McCain would commit the U.S. to — in Iraq and beyond –for, as he put it in January, “one hundred years. Make it a thousand.”

In the last month, liberal interest groups have launched an effort to portray the GOP nominee-to-be as being “McSame” as Bush. After McCain’s Los Angeles foreign-policy speech, however, it’s clear that the moniker is wide of the mark. McCain isn’t McSame. He’s Bush-Plus.

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